Documents: Special Interest: Seasonal:

How to Improve A Winter Garden
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


March 6, 2011

Winter arrives and daylight in the garden becomes a precious commodity. One by one, the trees finish shedding their leaves and the borders collapse in late autumn's chill.

In colder regions, the gardening season lasts barely six months, and a half-year of winter is too long to endure without something beautiful to gaze at out our windows.

Although no landscape should be designed entirely for winter, it's important that structure, form, texture and colour be year-round constants. Here, then, are seven ways to improve your winter garden:

1. Trees and shrubs with attractive shapes.

With the absence of brightly-colored flowers and the loss of leaves from deciduous trees and shrubs in winter, a garden's "bones" become strikingly evident. In fact, a well-designed winter landscape can be as evocative as a romantic garden at the height of summer. In the formal garden at the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden, shown below, tree silhouettes and precisely sculpted hedges of boxwood, cedar and beech create hauntingly beautiful winter imagery.

Consider trees with unusual branching patterns, like the parallel, horizontal branching of the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) and the pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia or the gnarled branching of the Camperdown elm (Ulmus camperdownii). For tiny gardens, there's the featherleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Dissectum') with its graceful, weeping branches, or the impossibly curly Harry Lauder's walking stick, a.k.a. corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta.' )

2. Conifers.

Every landscape needs a few needled evergreens to give form and hold the snow in winter. For a small garden, I like 'Black Hills' spruce, a form of white spruce which reaches only about 10 feet in 10 years and matures at about 25 feet. 'Ohlendorff' is shorter, maturing at eight feet. Hemlocks, my favorites, are graceful trees and can be sheared to size. Weeping Nootka false cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula') is very elegant and matures at just 20 feet. A white cedar hedge provides privacy and affords cover to chattering cardinals and chickadees. Then there are all the beautifully coloured small conifers such as gold false cypress and dwarf blue spruces (e.g. 'Fat Albert') and the excellent spreading junipers which provide subtle shading in the garden throughout the year.

3. Bark and stems.

Paperbark maple, Acer griseum, is one of the best small garden trees with its shiny, peeling, copper-coloured bark and leaves that turn red in fall. Birches are spectacular in winter, either native paper birch (Betula papyrifera), shown below, or the Himalayan birch, Betula 'Jacquemonti,' with white bark like native paper birch, but thought to be more resistant than other types to bronze birch borer. As for shrubs, I love the brilliant red stems of variegated dogwood (Cornus alba 'Elegantissima') or native red-osier dogwood (Cornus servicea) and its bright yellow cousin 'Flavamirea.'

4. Colourful winter berries.

Many crabapples hang on through winter, mountain ash berries are spectacular until the birds find them and cotoneasters make colorful groundcovers and come in a variety of growth habits. The brilliant orange berries of bittersweet vine last a long time, as do the little teardrop-shaped ones of thorny barberries. My favourite winter fruits, though, are the pendulous clusters of red berries borne in great abundance on the Washington hawthorn tree (Crataegus phaenopyrum).

5. Ornamental grasses.

Three of the best for holding shape, at least in early winter, include maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis), especially the cultivar 'Gracillimus,' feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum).

6. Artistic elements.

Even if you don't have sculptural trees and shrubs, you can position a piece of statuary, Japanese lantern, garden bench,arbour, pergola, iron obelisk, sundial, armillary or some other architectural feature to catch the snow and create a focal point in the winter landscape.

7. Garden lighting.

Subtle lighting effects that highlight the "bones" of the trees, shrubs and arching grasses in your garden can be very dramatic in winter, especially under a fresh blanket of snow.

But remember,don't over-illuminate -- be discreet. With garden lighting, less is more.

Story & Photos © Janet Davis

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